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The Levites

The Levites

Ethics 2:2

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Heaven or earth? The kollel or the kibbutz? Are we a spiritual people whose physical lives are a challenge to be overcome or, at best, a tool to be exploited in pursuit of spiritual goals, or are we gardeners entrusted by our Creator with the task of tending to and cultivating the world in which we were placed?

We Jews have been debating the issue for as long as we have been a people. Was not the first message that Moses brought to us from Mount Sinai that G‑d desires us to become His "kingdom of priests" and His "holy people"? On the other hand, look at the Torah that He ended up giving us on that very mountain -- 613 commandments "virtually all of which address material things and matters of this world" (Tanya ch. 4). On the one hand, the Torah enjoins, "Be holy, for I, your G‑d, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2); on the other hand, the prophet exhorts: "He did not create the world for tohu ('chaos' and 'transcendence'); he created it to be settled" (Isaiah 45:18), and three times a day we proclaim in the Aleinu prayer the mission statement, "To fix up the world as G‑d's kingdom."

On the one hand, we have the view expressed by Rabban Gamliel in the 2nd chapter of Ethics of our Fathers:

Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world... Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.

On the other hand, we have the statement by Rabbi Nehora'i on the last page of the tractate Kiddushin;

I put aside all the professions in the world, and I will teach my child only Torah

The two sides of the debate come to a head in the Talmudic tractate of Berachot, exemplified in and expressed by the persons of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

It is written: "And you shall harvest your grain, your wine and your oil" (Deuteronomy 11:14). What does this come to teach us? But since it says, "This book of Torah shall not cease from your mouth [and you shall study it day and night]" (Joshua 1:8), I would have thought that one should take these words literally. Comes the verse to teach us: "You shall harvest your grain" -- conduct yourself also in the ways of the world. These are the words of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: If a person plows in the plowing season, sows in the sowing season, reaps in the reaping season, threshes in the threshing season, and winnows when there is wind, what shall become of the [study of] Torah? But when the people of Israel do the will of the Almighty, their work is done by others, as it is written (Isaiah 61:5): "And strangers will stand and graze your sheep..." (Talmud, Berachot 35a).

And how is the issue decided? Well, it's very hard to get a conclusive statement from us Jews. The answer is usually, "They're both right." Or else: "They're both really saying the same thing." In this case, the Talmud concludes:

Many did like Rabbi Yishmael, and succeeded. Many did like Rabbi Shimon, and did not succeed.

So the Jew is a full-fledged citizen of planet earth. Well, yes, but not exactly. While Rabbi Yishmael's approach is deemed the more "successful," Rabbi Shimon's commands a far greater place in the Jewish consciousness, with a special day on our calendar (Lag BaOmer) devoted to the celebration of his life and our traditional veneration of sages and tzaddikim who devote their entire lives to learning and prayer. Also, note that the Talmud speaks about "many" who succeeded with Rabbi Yishmael's approach and failed at Rabbi Shimon's. This implies the existence of a "few" for whom Rabbi Shimon's approach is not only an ideal, but a pragmatic course of life.

And so it was from the very beginning. In our first generation as a people, while still in the desert, the nation of Israel was divided into two communities: 1) the twelve tribes of Israel who were assigned portions in the land and became farmers, merchants, statesmen and soldiers; and 2) the tribe of Levi, who were "consecrated" to the service of G‑d in the Holy Temple as "Levites" and "Kohanim."

And the Levites were certainly the fewer of the two: they were one tribe out of 13, and they were by far the smallest tribe. (The census conducted of the 12 tribes counted 603,550 males between the ages of 20 and 60; the separate census taken of the Levites included all males from the age of 1 month, and totaled only 22,300.)

What decides who belongs to the "many" and who belongs to the "few"? If we go by the Levite/Israelite model, then it seems to be a matter of pedigree -- you're either born a gardener of G‑d's earth, or you're born to a life of spirituality.

Not so, says Maimonides:

Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man of all the inhabitants of the earth, whose spirit has moved him and whose mind has given him to understand to set himself aside to stand before G‑d to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G‑d and walk justly as G‑d has created him, and he cast from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek -- this man has become sanctified, a holy of holies, and G‑d shall be his portion and his lot forever, and shall grant him his needs in this world, as He has granted the Kohanim and the Levites... (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Shemittah and Jubilee Cycles, 13:13)

Turns out that, like most everything else, G‑d says to us: You choose.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Anonymous Basse Terre March 20, 2014

There is no difference in being born a gardener of G-d's earth, or born to a life of spirituality, but the Jewish people don't get it, nature and miracles are the same. Nature is the greatest miracle we can ever understand (Sfas Emes on Vayikra 25:20-21) Reply

Leon Los Angeles, CA March 14, 2011

The second part of the saying Those that work with the public...
Does this refer to public officials or to the public employees? Reply

ROGER D. Force Dubois, PA/USA November 6, 2006

Levitical Tribe Were not the Levite Tribe the chief musicians in the Temple? Reply

Eric S. Kingston CA via cuchabad.org September 21, 2005

Heaven to Earth, Earth to Heaven. Some work from Heaven to Earth. Some work from Earth to Heaven. Both repair and organize when done in the ways of Rightoueness and ultimately, in the Redemption, are one and the same. Reply

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